NHL Playoffs

Cam Neely: No discussion with the NHL about shortening playoff rounds

Cam Neely: No discussion with the NHL about shortening playoff rounds

There are still plenty of plans out there for the NHL as it considers restarting the 2019-20 regular season that’s been paused by the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s definite that the NHL and its Players Association would both like to finish the remaining month of regular-season games prior to the playoffs. It also seems both sides have agreed on a three-week training camp period (“or maybe a little less” said Bruins team president Cam Neely) after being idle since the beginning of March.

It also appears both have agreed on one designated arena for each of the four NHL divisions that would host three weeks of games, with teams playing divisional opponents to finish the regular season. According to an ESPN report, Carolina, Minnesota and Edmonton are the lead cities to host these games with the league yet to determine a viable candidate for the Atlantic Division teams.

“The [NHL] does want it to be a collaborative effort amongst the member clubs. [League executives] are not just saying this is what we’re going to do and this is how it’s going to be,” said Neely. “They really want the input from the clubs. They have talked about everything, playing in front of no fans, playing in front of a half-empty building and playing in front of a full building. What it would take.

“Obviously, it’s not just what’s going nationally but also state-by-state restrictions. So, they are looking at that. When the time comes they will look at the state restrictions and city restrictions to see what we could do. If it gets to a point where we can play hockey games without fans and get the season going, I can see the league recommending that course of action.”

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The Bruins have reportedly voiced their interest in TD Garden hosting the Atlantic Division bracket, but Boston’s status as a hotspot for the coronavirus would reasonably seem to rule that out as a possibility.

In an informative virtual town hall with Bruins season ticket holders earlier this week, Neely also essentially ruled out a couple of things that he said have never really been discussed.

Neely said the NHLPA wasn’t going to be on board for anything that would lead directly into a Stanley Cup playoff tournament without a ramp-up of regular-season games. The Hall of Fame winger also indicated that the NHL Board of Governors has never really discussed shortened playoff series, which would also seem to rule out that possibility.

“I have not heard that. I know it’s been out there in the media, but any calls with the league they have not mentioned shortening the playoff rounds at all,” said Neely. “If they are doing [regular season and playoff games] without fans, they are going to try to make it the best TV event programming possible. You might be able to see different camera angles because they’ll be able to bring the cameras down a little closer because there are no fans in the way. They’re looking at ‘How can we bring the game on the TV a little differently than we see now?’”

The idea of four rounds of playoffs with full seven-game series is exactly the return to quasi-normalcy that hockey fans are craving right now, but the name of the game is clearly doing it with the safety of players, fans and staff in mind.

The sense from the NHL and NHLPA is that there are plenty of possibilities still there to finish the regular season, complete a two-month Stanley Cup playoff and begin an 82-game regular season for 2020-21 sometime starting in November. Perhaps those tentative plans would change if things take a turn for the worse with the virus over the next month or two, but it appears the NHL is tracking for a return date to be determined over the summer.

Giant wasted chance for Bruins, and it may not come again anytime soon

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File photo

Giant wasted chance for Bruins, and it may not come again anytime soon

BOSTON – The home dressing room at TD Garden was full of tears, heartbreak and shell-shocked silence in the moments following Boston’s Game 7 Stanley Cup Final loss to the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night.

There had been so much excitement and optimism given Boston’s overwhelming playoff experience, given how hot goaltender Tuukka Rask had been throughout the postseason and given the way Boston had seemingly cracked the Blues during Game 6 in St. Louis. But instead it was a sad, frustrated and somewhat resigned Bruins dressing room following a 4-1 loss to the Blues in Game 7 where St. Louis was named Stanley Cup champs on Boston’s home ice.

There were no controversial calls and no predatory hits from the Blues players looking to knock Bruins skaters out of the postseason. Instead St. Louis played it straight and simply overpowered the Bruins 5-on-5 while taking advantage of a couple of mistakes and an average night from Tuukka Rask in a game where the Bruins needed to be stellar.

“It’s an empty feeling. It’s a long year. Someone had to win and someone had to lose, and we came out on the wrong side of it. It’s not the way you picture it. It’s as simple as that,” said Bruce Cassidy. “I don’t think anybody is leaving the building tonight unfortunately in our locker room saying they put their best foot forward unfortunately, and that’s the whole group. We didn’t get it done at every position, coaching staff, whatever, they ended up being better than us and did what they had to do to win. It’s that simple.”

Cassidy’s words ring true when you consider that St. Louis’ best players showed up with Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan O’Reilly, Jordan Binnington and Brayden Schenn all factoring in a big way into the win, and Boston’s best players were mostly nowhere to be found in a decisive Game 7 where they needed to be difference-makers. The Bruins didn’t score the first goal and had a breakdown in the final seconds of the first period that put them down 2-0 as they headed into the first intermission.

The Bruins went out with a whimper rather than a mighty fight kicking and screaming, and it amounts to a giant missed opportunity for the Black and Gold. Once the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins went out in the first round of the playoffs, the pathway to the Stanley Cup Final was wide open in the East after they managed to advance past the Maple Leafs. They were a better, deeper and more dangerous team than St. Louis on paper headed into the Cup Final, and they had home-ice advantage as it played out in Game 7.

Despite all these things, the Bruins let slip through their fingers the first Game 7 chance to win the Cup on home ice in franchise history.

“It’s hard to tell right now to be honest with you,” said Bergeron, when asked about the Bruins getting back to this point again. “It’s hard to really think past what’s going on tonight, so like I said, it’s heartbreaking. You know, that’s it.

“Whatever we say doesn’t matter because it is what it is. I’m proud of the guys. I’m proud of everyone and the way that we’ve competed. But then you don’t get the result and it’s hard to be standing here and answering questions.”

In doing so the Black and Gold almost certainly have blown their last, best chance to win with this particular group of core Bruins players. With Zdeno Chara at 42 years old and Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask all in their 30’s, the chances of the Bruins being as healthy and productive over a two-plus month Stanley Cup run aren’t very good at all. Sure, the futures are bright for young guys like David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Brandon Carlo, and maybe they will be back again in the Cup Final one of these days.

“I thought we battled hard. Like I said, if you look at it it’s such a tough moment to kind of reflect on right after. This group battled really hard all year long, we overcame some adversity, and some challenges,” said Zdeno Chara, who missed exactly zero games in these playoffs after fracturing his jaw in Game 4 of the Cup Final. “I’m really proud of this team. There is for sure a lot of character in this room and I’m sure there is a bright future for this team.

“We can be proud of what we’ve done, but we just came short. Sometimes those downs make you stronger and I believe this team still has potential to get back to the Final and get it done.”

Maybe yes and maybe no.

But the odds are extremely slim that the playoff field will open up again perfectly for the Bruins along with the ideal blend of proven vets and talented youngsters on the roster. This was the season for guys like Bergeron, Marchand, Chara and Rask to cement their respective legacies at the NHL level, and for the younger generation to join them as proven Cup winners.

Instead there is “devastation”, “heartbreak” and a whole bunch of players who understandably bawled their way through Wednesday night’s postgame. It’s a credit to them that they came out and faced the music, but part of the sadness had to be about the unfortunate reality that they might not be back this away again anytime soon.

The window is closing on this aging Bruins core group and the chances for some of them to match this season’s output again aren’t very good. Certainly nobody is expecting that David Krejci is going to score 20 goals again in a season during his NHL career, and Bergeron continues to see his body break down after 16 rigorous, heavy-mile years at the NHL level.

That’s why getting all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and falling short has to be a crushing twist of fate, and a sobering reminder that might have been their final chance to hoist the Cup one last time.

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Unfortunately for the Bruins, this was a Stanley Cup choke

Unfortunately for the Bruins, this was a Stanley Cup choke

Losing the Stanley Cup is heartbreaking. It's guaranteed to leave a room of elite athletes so ruined the poor bastards can barely get the words out as they try to articulate how proud of their teammates they are. 

But some losses are worse than others. There's the Cinderella tale that just falls short. There's the world-beater that gets beaten down by injuries. Then there are the losses that aren't called losses at all. Rather, "loss" is swapped out for its ugliest replacement. 

Choke.

And the Bruins choked. 

It's the last thing anyone in Boston wants to hear or think right now, but unfortunately it's as simple as this: The Bruins, were the best remaining team a week into the playoffs. They had home ice in the Stanley Cup Final against a slower team with an exploitable goalie. Then, with the Cup in their building waiting to be presented to them, the Bruins suffered their greatest margin of defeat since Game 1 of the first round.

They didn't lose because they couldn't handle the toughness or because the refs were meanies. They lost because Game 106 of the season was unrecognizable.

The worst of the Bruins showed up in their forward stars once again doing nothing, but two of their strengths failed. For a team so famously composed and resilient, the Bruins sure let a frustrating end to a dominant first period drown them. Tuukka Rask, meanwhile, finally couldn't bail them out as he did throughout the spring. The latter will still yield a parade in Boston, as talk radio callers will undoubtedly bask in one of the dumbest narratives in sports staying alive. 

Chokes typically have goats attached to them. It realistically won't be Rask, even though Game 7 was statistically his worst night of the postseason. He'll get a pass for being the one who got them there, while Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak will probably lead the pack for following up brilliant regular seasons with uncharacteristically quiet performances in the Final.

Whether Patrice Bergeron gets a slice of that pie remains to be seen. The obvious guess in all three cases is that injuries were in play, as it remains unfathomable that the best line in hockey did not score a single goal in five-on-five play with all three of its members on the ice. 

Taking a step back, this wasn't the season-long nightmare experienced by the Celtics. Part of the fun of this Bruins team was that even in finishing tied for second in the NHL, they were the underdog. If you thought the Bruins were going to win the Cup, you were either really biased or just liked picking upsets, because the Lightning were waiting to eliminate them in the second round for the second straight year. 

But the circumstances changed, leaving the Bruins as the best team in the playoffs as a result. Once Tampa was gone and Rask was established as the postseason's best player, the expectation -- not that word, not "goal" -- was the Cup. It would take either worse play or some major injuries -- not a better opponent, because one didn't exist -- for the Bruins to fail to meet that expectation. 

For now, here's what we know about whatever injuries may or may not have plagued Boston's star forwards: They weren't significant enough to keep them out of the lineup. Plus, if a player was playing through significant injury and underachieving to the degree those players did, you'd think a coaching decision would have been made on it at some point (think Pastrnak in Round 2). 

Instead, the Bruins took the ice for Game 7 as the better team on paper with little reason to believe they had it in them to squander such an opportunity. They didn't, and a city synonymous with championships is going to have to fix its mouth to use that other word.

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